Forever in blue jeans: Lessons in manufacturing

Andrew WadeAndrew Wade
Senior reporter

Having recently backed it on Kickstarter, I was delighted to see UK startup Community Clothing reach its £75,000 campaign target this week. It’s the first time I’ve ever backed anything on a crowdfunding platform, but there was something about this project that really grabbed me.

Community Clothing is a cooperative set up primarily to maintain jobs in the UK textile industry, retaining the skills that have been built up and passed down over generations. The seasonal nature of the fashion industry means that even the very best UK textile factories have a significant amount of spare capacity at certain times of the year. In many cases this is leading to job insecurity, zero hours contracts and the gradual erosion of skills in the industry.

Taking advantage of these seasonal lulls, the cooperative will produce a range of British designed and manufactured clothing, selling it directly to the customer rather than via wholesalers and the high street. Initially the plan is to focus on just a handful of items, including men’s and women’s jeans, a Harrington jacket, and a raincoat. Local suppliers will provide fabrics, buttons and labels, while any profits will be reinvested in the communities where the factories are located, supporting skills training and apprenticeships.

The driving force behind the project is Patrick Grant, a fashion designer that revived Savile Row’s flagging Norton & Sons outfit in the noughties. He has since brought back the long forgotten label E. Tautz – which Norton & Sons had acquired in 1968 – partnering with Debenhams on a number of collections. The charismatic Grant can also be found making housewives go weak at the knees on The Great British Sewing Bee – a Bake Off spin-off, if you will.

Inspiration for Community Clothing came after one of Grant’s suppliers, the Cookson & Clegg clothing factory in Blackburn, notified him that it was closing after 150 years. This spurred the designer into action, and within two weeks the factory had been purchased and the idea for the new label had been conceived. Since then 30 new jobs have been created, and with the Kickstarter target reached, orders are due to start shipping in July. I’m already looking forward to breaking in my new jeans.

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Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to believe that the same model could apply to other areas of British manufacturing, but surely there are similar principles at work, and at the very least some lessons to be learnt. Despite talk in Westminster of Northern Powerhouses and a revival of UK manufacturing, the sector continues to struggle. GDP figures from the last quarter of 2015 show that manufacturing output is actually lower than when George Osborne delivered his infamous ‘march of the makers’ statement during the 2011 Budget announcement.

The appeal for me of Community Clothing is twofold. As someone that spends a lot of time in jeans, the prospect of getting my paws on a quality pair, designed by someone at the top of the industry, for less than £50, is a no-brainer. The fact that the money will support the UK textiles industry and help retain skills and jobs is the cherry on the cake.

Britain’s proud tradition of manufacturing stretches back a long time. It is a huge asset. Made in the UK is a stamp of quality that has intrinsic value, recognised around the world. Competing with China and other developing nations in a race to the bottom is not sustainable, as the steel industry can attest to. What’s needed is an alternative approach, an investment in skills that will enable the UK to accentuate that point of difference that already exists, highlighting Britain’s strengths. We need more high-value manufacturing and a more direct route to market for industry that will allow it to increase competitiveness. And perhaps most importantly, we need people to start recognising the problems and take positive steps to resolve them. If a Savile Row designer can do it, what’s stopping the UK government?